Book review of Converting the Saints, A Study of Religious Rivalry in America, by Charles Randall Paul
Back in 1980, I was standing at the railroad station in the southern Bolivia town of Yacuiba, waiting for my new missionary companion to arrive. Having only been a member for a few years, I had never come across missionaries from a Protestant church before. On that night, however, I came across about a dozen Baptist missionaries traveling to their next assignment, among indigenous cannibals. All were very friendly and happy to see a fellow American, except for one. He had been a Baptist missionary in Brigham City, Utah a few years earlier. Instantly, he wanted to debate what he believed was Mormon doctrine, throwing out one controversial teaching after another. Fortunately, he came upon a teaching that I was able to show in the Bible. When he protested it as a bad translation (I was using the KJV), I asked him if he believed scripture was God breathed. When he answered affirmatively, I then said he would have to consider the LDS teaching on the issue as a possibility. He quickly ended our conversation and left.
Upon seeing the title, Converting the Saints, I initially thought it would be filled with anecdotes of preaching to the Mormons in Utah. Happily, I found the book to be this and so much more.
Paul teaches that here in America (and elsewhere) people struggle to convert one another to some belief system or another, in a never ending battle of ideas. Our Founding Fathers established the freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly on the premise that the free flow of speech and debate on all issues is essential for a multicultural society to thrive. Unfortunately, in the desperate effort to convert all people to one’s religion or political views, often talk breaks down and turns to violence. This volume focuses on this issue and how it affected not only the LDS in American history, but two other major parties, as well.
Converting the Saints is broken into a strong Introduction and ten chapters, with the following titles:
- The American Lively Experiment: Sustaining Religious Rivalry and Peace
- Violent American Religious Conflicts: Three Strong Cases
- American Religious Climate 1900-1925: A Christian Nation?
- Rival Stewards of the American Promised Land
- The True Church Challenge: Counterfeit vs Real Christianity
- John Danforth Nutting: Nondenominational Preacher At Large
- William Mitchell Paden: Presbyterian Polemicist
- Franklin Spencer Spalding: Episcopalian Diplomat
- Comparing Mission Methods of Nutting, Paden, And Spalding
- Contestational Rivalry Without Coercion Or Violence
The book begins by discussing the American Revolution’s aftermath, where freedom of expression and belief was foremost in the minds of those creating the Constitution. The hope was that instead of religion and politics leading to wars, as were seen in Europe, people could use discourse to find both differences and common ideas.
However, when large communities differ greatly from the majority, there becomes a pattern of action. First, there is a period of trying to compromise and convert the offenders over to the majority view. When that does not work, violence often becomes the next method chosen. Paul notes three such major communities in American history: the South, Native Americans, and the Mormons. He details how the Majority sought to convince the South of the evils of slavery, the Native Americans to accept European customs and religion, and the Mormons to renounce polygamy and become traditional Christians.Each of these efforts ended in violence: the Civil War, the Indian Wars, and the Mormon wars. Interestingly, Paul notes that the Indian and Mormon wars both essentially ended in the same year, 1890, with Wounded Knee and the Revelation ending plural marriage.
Paul then compares beliefs between traditional Protestantism and Mormonism. To ensure his Mormon bias did not creep into the description of Protestant beliefs, he had a colleague, who is a Protestant scholar, go over several chapters, thrashing and rewriting as needed. This is one of the most fair writings I’ve ever read concerning both LDS and Protestant beliefs. Too often, one side compares their best with the other’s worst, or twist the teaching to create a straw man. Kudos to Paul for this extra effort, ensuring the book is truly worthy of the word, scholarship.
The book discusses three major Protestant missionaries from the early 1900s, and their different methodologies in reaching Mormon hearts and minds. The efforts went from all out attacks on Mormonism, usually treating the members as innocent, but naive, dupes that needed rescue from an evil heresy, to kindly and scholarly efforts from Spalding, who became friends with B. H. Roberts and sought to slowly change the culture of Mormonism, to turn Mormonism into an acceptable form of Christianity.
One of the clearest messages that come from this study is the importance of mutual respect and continual discussion, even when we do not agree on everything. Tolerating other cultures and beliefs, even if we think they are going to hell, is necessary to avoid the evils of war and hatred.
This is one of the best scholarly books I’ve read so far this year. Yet, most of it is accessible to the average reader. While many may think this is a book only for Mormons, I would hope that all pastors, laypersons and politicians would read this, in order to understand the importance of free speech and ideas. This is especially true in a time when so many want to shout down the other side, and speak violence towards their enemies, who in reality may not be that much different from them.
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